There was a conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States which spanned the globe and affected the lives of billions of people. For the Soviets, this conflict reached its low point in Afghanistan in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s.
Mujahideen, Islamist warriors, were discovered who were willing to fight the Soviets. They were poor peasants and local warlords ruling small rural regions in Afghanistan. They had the advantage of terrain and local support, but little else.
The CIA made efforts to support the Mujahideen against the Soviets in a proxy war in which it could not be proven that the Americans were involved. The way that the CIA did this was by aiding those who wanted to see the Mujahideen succeed against the Soviets. This included wealthy Saudi individuals which had the ability to channel millions, and eventually billions through charity organizations. It also included intelligence resources from the Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI, since the Americans had almost no one with links and intelligence resources in the country.
Once brought together to the same table, these very different groups were able to come together to give rise to a movement which channelled a great deal of resources in the form of men, money, and weapons, against the Soviets.
The conflict was unique in that thousands, tens of thousands of Islamic fighters flooded into the various fighting factions of Afghanistan from around the world. Many came from as far away as Libya, Somalia, and even the Philippines. Never before had such an organization been created and few could have even realized that it was even happening, besides the Mujaheed themselves. A military organization unlike any other, truly international and joined by a single purpose began to form, that purpose being ridding the Islamic world of outside influences. These were new Mujahideen of Afghanistan fighting what we now understand to be Jihadists.
The Saudis in particular were influential. Their money brought them great power and sway within the new military alliance. Along with their money they brought with them Wahhabi religious zealotry. These fundamentalists practiced an orthodox interpretation of Sunni Islam, calling themselves Salafis, which sought to abolish “newer” practices of other sects of the faith. They branded those didn’t practice Islam in their way as apostates (takfir), thus paving the way for their conversion to a more feudal form of the religion or even their execution. While not obvious, especially to the CIA, this had the effect of gathering thousands of warriors of divergent branches of Sunni Islam and unifying them, through forced uniformity to a central philosophical model and belief system, repressing and reforming all others. This was necessary for such an international contingent and had the effect of bringing together all of these different warriors into one single, highly motivated, highly unified, and highly organized fighting force, even if their organizational structure was nothing like any force seen up to that point in history.
I’m sure that at this point, many were trained directly by American as well as other nations’ military forces in the fighting of unconventional warfare. It would just be logical given what the Americans understood at the time and considering that, by our understanding, the militant Islamists wanted to get rid of the Soviets from Afghanistan, not all Western influences from the Islamic World. Our abilities and understanding of unconventional warfare through years in Vietnam and other conflicts meant that it was probably considered logical to aid the Mujaheedin in their fight against our existential enemy for more than thirty years. So it wouldn’t surprise me and it shouldn’t surprise you that it could be proved, though no one likes to admit or accept it, that American forces likely directly trained those who would one day fight against us in the War on Terror. If not directly, this knowledge found its way to the front lines via Pakistani intelligence agents who had established training camps all along the Northern Pakistani border with Afghanistan.
The combination of Afghanistani and international militants, Saudi funding, Wahhabi philosophy, and Pakistani intelligence, in many ways brought to the same table by American intervention against the Soviet Union were a force that reached critical mass over the 80’s and eventually brought about the humiliating defeat of the Soviets and was part of the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union.
This is when American involvement ended. It was no longer a concern for the Americans what happened in Afghanistan. Their enemy, after all, were the Soviets. The war was won, what left was there to do? Those who the war’s end affected the most were the Mujahideen that remained after the dust settled. They were the Islamic warriors who had fought the Soviets, brought from across the Islamic world and with the goal of rebuilding Afghanistan in their ideal Islamic image. Once the war was over, all those who were involved seemingly abandoned them. Many of these people had no avenue to return home. They were now stranded in Afghanistan, a devastated nation with little hope. Many came together to form alliances around their strongest leaders, those who still maintained their funding sources and intelligence networks abroad. These leaders included influencers such as the Saudi elite Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden and others like him, veteran officers of the Mujahideen forces were idealists, invigorated by the belief that a pure Islamic state could one day be built from the ashes of Afghanistan, one which reflected their Wahhabi interpretations of the religion. They would rebuild Afghanistan to serve as the example of the perfect Islamic state, a beacon to other Islamic nations across the world. The organization they created was built from extremely die hard adherents to their movement, vetted through tight bonds of tribal relationships and personal battlefield shared hardship going back years. This organization would serve as the base of the future Islamic state. “The Base” as it is translated in Arabic, is “Al Qaeda.”
Al Qaeda became a powerful organization very quickly. They reorganized the channel of funds from their Saudi religious leaders and family members, as well as rebuilt atrophied information sharing networks with the Pakistani ISI. They spread their beliefs, influence, and knowledge through veterans and comrades who returned as conquering heroes across the Islamic world. These heroes led in revivals of “traditional” Islamic philosophy that saw the repression of the now branded apostates and fed the movement further. They installed a new government in Afghanistan which was made up of allied students of acceptable Islamic teachings. “The Students” or Taliban, puppets of the reclusive leadership of al Qaeda, became the ruling regime in Afghanistan.
The Americans’ great folly in the matter of al Qaeda was the belief that once something is created it merely goes away. The Mujahideen were a fanatical group which served our purposes temporarily, but which had motivations and capabilities far exceeding our wildest expectations, or even their own. We may have brought together the means for their rise, but I honestly think it is wrong to imagine that anyone could have rationally predicted what would arise from it or that anyone, save for Osama bin Laden and his followers could have knowingly designed it. That said, yes the CIA and the Americans at large, had a role to play in the creation of Al Qaeda, as small and unforeseeable as that role may have been. In our time of fear against the greater enemy that was the Soviet Union, we brought all the necessary pieces that were needed to create such an organization to one table. Our failure, was that we underestimated the strength of Islamic fanaticism. We failed in that we assumed that once we, the only world’s lone superpower left the table, that all the others would as well. We failed again to oversee what took place at the table once we were no longer there. We did not create Al Qaeda, but we did create the situation in which it would be built.
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